Terry Campese has convinced his Canberra Raiders team-mates that he is ready to return to the NRL.
All the inspirational skipper needs now is approval from the club's coaching and medical staff to end a frustrating 12-month absence.
Campese trained strongly yesterday and is another step closer to making his long-awaited return to the Raiders for Saturday night's match against the New Zealand Warriors at Canberra Stadium.
The former Kangaroos and New South Wales representative has been named on an extended five-man bench, with the choice to come down between Campese or exciting teenager Anthony Milford, who made a solid first-grade debut in last week's win over the Sydney Roosters.
Two knee reconstructions and a serious groin injury have limited Campese to just eight games since the end of 2010.
Raiders hooker Matt McIlwrick is one of several players never to have lined up alongside Campese, and he believes the presence of the star playmaker has boosted everyone around him.
"Just this morning, [Campese] was talking about how well he has been eating, so he's obviously pretty excited to get out there and strap on the boots again," McIlwrick said.
"It's fantastic, especially for the young blokes. His experience and his leadership helps us out a lot.
"It's going to give the team a little bit more structure. I'm looking forward to that opportunity."
McIlwrick retains the No 9 jersey, with first-choice hooker Glen Buttriss recovering from a shoulder injury.
Utility Josh McCrone will also spend time at dummy-half after sliding seamlessly into the role against the Roosters, allowing either Campese or Milford to move into the halves.
Veteran Shaun Berrigan is being rested this week and will not feature for the Raiders' NSW Cup side, the Mounties.
The 34-year-old is having his workload carefully managed as the Raiders prepare for back-to-back road trips after next week's bye for the representative weekend.
The Raiders will take on the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville on April 27 before travelling to Melbourne to face the defending premiers seven days later.
Christchurch native McIlwrick is well aware how dangerous the Warriors can be, having played alongside mercurial halfback Shaun Johnson in the Junior Kiwis team in 2010.
McIlwrick got a taste of first grade in the second half of last season, but did not waste any time adding to his four appearances with a callup in round 1.
Two games off the bench led to his first career-starting appearance in the 24-22 win over the Roosters, playing mainly at dummy-half but also spending time in the second row.
Representing New Zealand his long-term goal, but next Friday he will be among the 20,000-strong crowd at Canberra Stadium cheering for an upset over the Kangaroos.
"I'm a pretty one-eyed Kiwi, so I'll be down there screaming at the top of my lungs," McIlwrick said.
"I used to follow the Warriors when I was younger and I played with some of the younger blokes, so I'm looking forward to that opportunity."
- Canberra Times
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